tree-logo.gif (7741 bytes) Plant Taxonomy (BIOL308)  -  Stephen G. Saupe, Ph.D.; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;

Descriptions, Literature, Manuals & Monographs

I. Taxonomy is a descriptive science
    This statement is probably not too surprising to you at this point in the course. We've seen plenty of examples in our text and keys.

II. Descriptions
    A botanical description should provide an accurate verbal image of the features of a plant. Obviously, descriptive terminology (phytography) is an important component of any description.

A. The purpose of a description is to provide a:

    1. Means to check the identity of a plant - a plant should match its description; and
    2. Source of information concerning the plant (i.e., synonyms, geographic distribution, origin)

B. Considerations when preparing a description. The description should:

    1. be relevant to the publication. In other words, you wouldn't describe carpel placentation types in a manual designed for the lay user.
    2. be accurate (i.e., use terminology correctly)
    3. include all the variation within the taxon being described (some characters vary extensively within a taxon).
    4. be consistent within a treatment. In other words, descriptions should follow a standard sequence (see below). The sequence is usually: whole plant features followed by vegetative features followed by reproductive features. Other information, such as economic importance, range, habitat, elevation, derivation of name, and chromosome number, is often included. As a general rule of thumb, work from the bottom of the plant up (called acropetally) and work from the outside in.
    5. a typical sequence of characters in a manual include: (a) General modifiers (large, small, evergreen, parasitic); (b) Sex (synoecious, monoecious, dioecious); (c) Plant duration (annual vs. perennial); (d) Habit (herb, tree, shrub, vine); (e) Roots; (f) Stem features (rhizome, tuber, nodes); (g) Leaves (structure, arrangement, position, blade, sheath, ligule, petiole, stipules); (h) Inflorescences (type, position, peduncle/rachis, bracts); (i) Flowers (sex, symmetry, calyx, corolla, androecium, gynoecium, receptacle, pedicel); (j) Fruits (type, receptacle); (k) Seeds (type, coat, endosperm, placentation); (l) chromosome number; (m) Flowering data; (n) habitat data; (o) Distribution; (p) Synonyms; (q) Remarks; (r) References. This listing is adapted from Radford et al.
    6. include standard assumptions about the plants being described. For example, unless it’s otherwise stated, it is assumed that the plant has leaves, stems, roots and reproductive parts, has chlorophyll, and so on.
    7. descriptions for a species are typically more detailed than for a genus which in turn are more detailed than that for a family.

III. The literature of taxonomy is voluminous
    There are several reasons for this including: (a) Taxonomy has a very long history (remember, it's the first science!); (b) Taxonomy has a complete scientific and non-technical literature; (c) Taxonomy is a descriptive science; and (d) there are lots of taxonomists (especially in the "good old days"). A working familiarity with the types of literature can prove useful. Check out the "References". Some specific types of references that can be useful include:

A. Taxonomic Index. This is an index to a plant name and source of original publication of name. These are especially good if you want to learn if a name has already been used and at what rank.

    1. Index Kewensis. 2 volumes, 10 supplements. Lists seed plants alphabetically by genera, species, authors, place of publication, native country of plant and synonyms. It was started in 1893, from a grant by Darwin to Kew Herbarium. A new supplement is published every five years or so and it is now computerized (available in CD) and on-line.
    2. Index Filigum. Similar to Index Kewensis, but for ferns. Started in Copenhagen in 1906.
    3. Gray Herbarium Card Index. Began at Harvard in 1890. Lists ferns, allies, seed plants of the western hemisphere. Duplicates in part, Index Kewensis.
    4. Torrey Card Index. Author index to publications

B. Bibliographies, Catalogues, Review Serials. Since the taxonomic literature is extremely vast, a taxonomist needs to be able to quickly access needed materials. These sources help to locate taxonomic references.

    1. Bibliographies account for all books and literature published on a particular subject during a particular period.
    2. Catalogs are listings of holding of libraries, institutions
    3. Review Serials are periodicals with reviews of current literature

C. Dictionaries and glossaries - alphabetic listing of terms or subject matter with explanation of meaning. Dictionaries more extensive in scope. Good examples are Willis, Mabberly

D. Floras and Manuals - works devoted to plants of a particular region or particular types of plants (like orchids, buttercups, ferns). Plants are systematically arranged, include: scientific name, author citation, references to original source of publication, and may or may not include descriptions and keys. Manuals considered broader in scope (i.e., more information) than floras.

E. Monographs and Revisions. Comprehensive study of a group of plants, usually a genus or family. Often worldwide in scope, though may be regional. A monograph is generally considered to be more detailed than a revision. The basic steps for doing monographic work are: (1) Check the literature; (2) Herbarium studies to learn the range of variation, locations, habitat preferences, etc.; (3) Field studies; (4) Experimental Studies such as hybridization experiments, pollination research, greenhouse or growth chamber studies, chromosomal analysis, chemical studies, etc.; and then (5) Publication!

F. Periodicals - appear at regular intervals. Brittonia, Taxon, Rhodora, Systematic Botany, Am. J. Botany, Bull Torrey Botanical Club, etc..... Publish original reports of literature, and descriptions of new species, etc.

G. Nomenclature - International Code of Botanical Nomenclature

H. General Texts - Benson, Davis & Heywood, Radford, Porter, Lawrence, Jones & Luchsinger, Smith, Walters & Keil.

I. Popular Treatments - picture books and other non-technical guides. Field Guide to Wildflowers, Northland Wildflowers.

J. Miscellaneous - color charts, maps

IV. Preparing a Description
    Practice makes perfect!

V. Local Literature
    Check the references provided. In addition, Flora of the Great Plains, Flora of the Prairies and Plains for Central North America; Vascular Plants of South Dakota; Spring Flora of Wisconsin; Flora of Illinois; Handbook of North Dakota Range Plants; Flora of Northeastern Minnesota; Gray’s Manual of Botany; Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada Vol. 1-3; Flora of Indiana; Manual of the Flowering Plants of Kansas.


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Last updated:  12/03/2007 / � Copyright by SG Saupe